A World of Words

“That [Helen Keller] has told her story, and told it so well, is half the story itself.”1

—John Macy, 1902

At age twenty-three, still a sophomore at Radcliffe College, collaborating with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and with her young editorial assistant, John Macy, Helen Keller published The Story of My Life. That indispensable book has sold millions of copies worldwide and inspired the statement quoted above. The four hundred pages of The Story of My Life virtually embody Helen’s battle to survive as a fully human hybrid of freak and angel.2

Five years later, in 1908, Helen produced a short collection of essays, The World I Live In.3 It is both a more playful and a more probing book than The Story of My Life and it established Helen Keller as a literary author of the first rank. Beyond her personal story, she here addressed a variety of challenging subjects—relations among the senses, history of philosophy, religious faith, and the mystery of language. The World I Live In provides an essential complement to The Story of My Life.


The First Twenty-four Years

Born a beautiful healthy child in 1880, Helen Keller was struck at nineteen months by a mysterious illness that left her totally deaf and blind. The toddler just beginning to talk reverted nearly to the state of a seriously wounded, untamed animal. She also became Sleeping Beauty. This isolated creature survived five years of frustration and indulgence within her despairing family before finding release. A twenty-one-year-old half-blind teacher, sent from Boston to rural Alabama, was able to wake the child princess and tame the vixen. That double feat required ten weeks of intense physical discipline and simultaneous training in the manual alphabet. Helen learned how to communicate with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and how to receive through Annie’s words symbolic knowledge of all physical and human reality. Helen was born again into language. Her impatience diffused into curiosity and enterprise. She was seven years old.

Communication by the manual alphabet, which entails spelling out words letter by letter, belongs to writing rather than speech. From the beginning, Helen Keller was a writer; she painstakingly learned crude oral speech only several years later. I shall be concerned with her here primarily as a deeply disabled person who found wholeness and salvation in words.

Four months after Annie’s arrival in Alabama, Helen began writing to her aunts and uncles in childish block letters. In six months she was using the first-person “I” instead of referring to herself as “Helen.” In a year she was learning to read and write in Braille. Her letters between age seven and eleven display remarkable development in knowledge of the world around her and in her command of English to describe and analyze that world. The one-hundred-page section of Helen’s letters in The Story of My Life resembles a movie of her mind as it reaches maturity.

Annie’s official report of 1891 to the Perkins Institute…

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